How grassroots sport can revitalise nation’s health after lockdown – Phil Willis

LAST week saw the return of grassroots sport across England after more than three months of lockdown.

What should be done to reinvigorate grassroots sport following the Covid pandemic?

Three months where football boots sat unused in the back of cupboards or languished in the boots of cars, rugby fields stood empty, serving only as locations of lonely dog walkers, and swimming pools have been as still as millponds, without the usual splashing and excitement of children and teenagers enjoying the freedom of a day at the swimming baths.

While we will have to wait a bit longer for indoor swimming pools to open again, last weekend saw outdoor sport return across Yorkshire Once again kids were pouring on to playing fields to enjoy sport, coaches were piling bibs and bags of balls into their cars and parents breathed a sigh of relief that their children had a positive outlet to exercise, make friends and burn off the frustration of months stuck at home.

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However we should not allow the fantastic news of the return of children’s sport to blind us to a wider worrying trend. Even before Covid-19 struck, we were dangerously inactive, with a quarter of adults doing less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week and more than half of children are failing to meet the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended level of an hour a day.

Young people playing football on Harrogate's Stray during the lockdown. Photo: James Hardisty.

While we all know being inactive is unhealthy, the pandemic has made it frighteningly clear just how big an impact it can have. But how do we become more active? What is stopping us getting the exercise we need and helping our children to do the same?

This is the challenge I am currently working on as the Chair of the House of Lords Committee on Sport and Recreation. We are looking to identify how we can support everyone live a more active life. It isn’t that people don’t want to exercise. A recent poll by Sky Kids found that 63 per cent of children would like to do more. The same poll found 43 per cent of children do only one hour of exercise a week and 14 per cent do none at all. Among young people and adults, the desire to do more is there so what is stopping people?

One issue is access to facilities. In most communities the majority of high-quality sports facilities are in schools and universities. Half of grass pitches and more than three-quarters of sports halls across the country are on school premises.

Some schools do a good job of making these available to the local community, but it is not uniformly the case. Too often these valuable facilities, which have been paid for from the public purse, are locked-up or under-used in the evenings, at weekends and in school holidays. We need to find ways to open-up school sites for local people and do it now.

A House of Lords committee headed by Lord Willis of Knaresborough is exploring the importance of grassroots sport.

The same applies to university facilities. Just think of the brilliant sports set-up at Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield Hallam Universities, and the vital importance of ensuring local people and sports clubs, as well as the students, feel welcome to use those facilities.

Helping these institutions open up to the local community is important and there are challenges as well as opportunities. I welcome the Government’s announcement of £1.6m to support schools to open their facilities over the summer holidays this year, but this is a long-term issue that requires long term thinking and funding.

Some groups have less access to sport and activity than others. People with disabilities and long-term health conditions are twice as likely to be inactive compared to the wider population. Children from the poorest households are around a third less likely to get the recommended level of physical activity compared to their richer classmates.

Less than 50 per cent of adults of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin get 150 minutes of physical activity a week compared to 62 per cent of the general population. The inequalities are worrying and need to be tackled. There is a role here for sports governing bodies, professional sports clubs and athletes as well as government.

What more can be done to encourage grassroots sport?

We see good examples in Yorkshire’s leading sports clubs including Football Foundations at Leeds United, Bradford City and Sheffield United which engage brilliantly with their local communities, developing programmes to encourage people to be take exercise and emphasising the link with better mental health, but more can be done.

One of the things our committee will consider is how the enthusiasm generated by professional sports clubs, as well as their resources, can be harnessed to help everyone be more active.

Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns have hit us all hard, for many of us our physical and mental health have taken a massive hit. But times of challenge can also be times of change and it is vital, as a nation, that we take the opportunity to reset how we approach sport and physical activity, I hope my committee can play a key part in that change.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough is a Lib Dem peer and chair of the House of Lords Committee on Sport and Recreation. He is the former MP for Harrogate.

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